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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Faculty and researchers in the Department of Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology at U.C. Santa Cruz seek to understand how harmful agents—including pathogens and chemicals—interact with the environment and damage humans and animals. The department has two main research foci: microbiology and environmental health and toxicology. These studies are by nature multidisciplinary and members of the METX department are passionate contributors to multidisciplinary efforts that cross departmental boundaries.

Cover page of Lead poisoning and the deceptive recovery of the critically endangered California condor.

Lead poisoning and the deceptive recovery of the critically endangered California condor.


Endangered species recovery programs seek to restore populations to self-sustaining levels. Nonetheless, many recovering species require continuing management to compensate for persistent threats in their environment. Judging true recovery in the face of this management is often difficult, impeding thorough analysis of the success of conservation programs. We illustrate these challenges with a multidisciplinary study of one of the world's rarest birds-the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). California condors were brought to the brink of extinction, in part, because of lead poisoning, and lead poisoning remains a significant threat today. We evaluated individual lead-related health effects, the efficacy of current efforts to prevent lead-caused deaths, and the consequences of any reduction in currently intensive management actions. Our results show that condors in California remain chronically exposed to harmful levels of lead; 30% of the annual blood samples collected from condors indicate lead exposure (blood lead ≥ 200 ng/mL) that causes significant subclinical health effects, measured as >60% inhibition of the heme biosynthetic enzyme δ-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase. Furthermore, each year, ∼20% of free-flying birds have blood lead levels (≥450 ng/mL) that indicate the need for clinical intervention to avert morbidity and mortality. Lead isotopic analysis shows that lead-based ammunition is the principle source of lead poisoning in condors. Finally, population models based on condor demographic data show that the condor's apparent recovery is solely because of intensive ongoing management, with the only hope of achieving true recovery dependent on the elimination or substantial reduction of lead poisoning rates.

Cover page of Patterns of mortality in free-ranging California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus).

Patterns of mortality in free-ranging California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus).


We document causes of death in free-ranging California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) from the inception of the reintroduction program in 1992 through December 2009 to identify current and historic mortality factors that might interfere with establishment of self-sustaining populations in the wild. A total of 135 deaths occurred from October 1992 (the first post-release death) through December 2009, from a maximum population-at-risk of 352 birds, for a cumulative crude mortality rate of 38%. A definitive cause of death was determined for 76 of the 98 submitted cases, 70% (53/76) of which were attributed to anthropogenic causes. Trash ingestion was the most important mortality factor in nestlings (proportional mortality rate [PMR] 73%; 8/11), while lead toxicosis was the most important factor in juveniles (PMR 26%; 13/50) and adults (PMR 67%; 10/15). These results demonstrate that the leading causes of death at all California Condor release sites are anthropogenic. The mortality factors thought to be important in the decline of the historic California Condor population, particularly lead poisoning, remain the most important documented mortality factors today. Without effective mitigation, these factors can be expected to have the same effects on the sustainability of the wild populations as they have in the past.

Cover page of Feather lead concentrations and (207)Pb/(206)Pb ratios reveal lead exposure history of California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus).

Feather lead concentrations and (207)Pb/(206)Pb ratios reveal lead exposure history of California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus).


Lead poisoning is a primary factor impeding the survival and recovery of the critically endangered California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). However, the frequency and magnitude of lead exposure in condors is not well-known in part because most blood lead monitoring occurs biannually, and biannual blood samples capture only approximately 10% of a bird's annual exposure history. We investigated the use of growing feathers from free-flying condors in California to establish a bird's lead exposure history. We show that lead concentration and stable lead isotopic composition analyses of sequential feather sections and concurrently collected blood samples provided a comprehensive history of lead exposure over the 2-4 month period of feather growth. Feather analyses identified exposure events not evident from blood monitoring efforts, and by fitting an empirically derived timeline to actively growing feathers, we were able to estimate the time frame for specific lead exposure events. Our results demonstrate the utility of using sequentially sampled feathers to reconstruct lead exposure history. Since exposure risk in individuals is one determinant of population health, our findings should increase the understanding of population-level effects from lead poisoning in condors; this information may also be helpful for other avian species potentially impacted by lead poisoning.

Cover page of Ammunition is the principal source of lead accumulated by California condors re-introduced to the wild.

Ammunition is the principal source of lead accumulated by California condors re-introduced to the wild.


The endangered California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was reduced to a total population of 22 birds by the end of 1982. Their captive-bred descendants are now being released back into the wild in California, Arizona, and Baja California, where monitoring indicates they may accumulate lead to toxic levels. Fragments of ammunition in the carcasses of game animals such as deer, elk, and feral pigs not retrieved by hunters or in gut piles left in the field have been considered a plausible source of the lead, though little direct evidence is available to support this hypothesis. Here, we measured lead concentrations and isotope ratios in blood from 18 condors living in the wild in central California, in 8 pre-release birds, and in diet and ammunition samples to determine the importance of ammunition as a source of exposure. Blood lead levels in pre-release condors were low (average 27.7 ng/mL, SD 4.9 ng/ mL) and isotopically similar to dietary and background environmental lead in California. In contrast, blood lead levels in free-flying condors were substantially higher (average 246 ng/mL, SD 229 ng/mL) with lead isotopic compositions that approached or matched those of the lead ammunition. A two-endmember mixing model defined by the background 207Pb/206Pb ratio of representative condor diet samples (0.8346) and the upper 207Pb/206Pb ratio of the ammunition samples (0.8184) was able to account for the blood lead isotopic compositions in 20 out of the 26 live condors sampled in this study (i.e., 77%). Finally, lead in tissues and in a serially sampled growing feather recovered postmortem from a lead-poisoned condor in Arizona evidence acute exposure from an isotopically distinct lead source. Together, these data indicate that incidental ingestion of ammunition in carcasses of animals killed by hunters is the principal source of elevated lead exposure that threatens the recovery in the wild of this endangered species.